A Milwaukee County Transit System bus (David Wilson | Flickr CC BY 2.0)
The U.S. House transportation panel early Wednesday passed along party lines the panel’s $60 billion slice of Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget plan, adding nearly $20 billion for a new transit program and high-speed rail development in the states.
Chairman Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon had considered these and other items underfunded in the Senate-led bipartisan infrastructure bill, passed there last month.
DeFazio opened the marathon Transportation and Infrastructure Committee meeting Tuesday morning by blasting the two-track plan to pass a $1.2 trillion bill to improve physical infrastructure alongside the broader $3.5 trillion package.
President Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress have said the larger plan is meant to address “human infrastructure” like health care and education.
That approach did not adequately address crucial priorities, especially related to climate change, DeFazio said, as the $1.2 trillion bill that was written without House input.
The larger bill, which Democrats are trying to pass without any Republican support through a legislative process known as budget reconciliation, affords the opportunity to address issues not covered in the Senate bill.
The panel’s allotment is just under $60 billion, though it could end up with less if the Senate reduces the $3.5 trillion topline.
“Unfortunately, we have been told that the bipartisan infrastructure plan is sacrosanct, and it just has to be voted on as-is in the House of Representatives,” DeFazio said.
“And we are going to be marking up a bill to try and fix some of the issues with the so-called bipartisan infrastructure plan, which we will not be allowed otherwise to deal with. This was a torturous negotiation, to put it mildly.”
Among those fixes in the bill the panel approved early Wednesday morning 37-29 was an additional $9.9 billion for transit grants, which would increase access for residents of low-income housing.
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To avoid duplication with the Senate bill—a condition with which the White House agreed to win Republican support—the transit funding would not go toward existing Federal Transit Administration formula or grant programs. It would be jointly administered by the FTA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
DeFazio framed the transit program as a climate issue because mass transit provides a greener alternative to single-occupancy vehicles.
The bill would also provide $10 billion for grants to develop high-speed rail routes, which could provide a lower-emission alternative to plane travel.
Another climate item would create a $4 billion incentive program to give extra federal funding to states that achieve greenhouse gas reductions. That is a weaker version of a proposed mandate that was part of a DeFazio-written surface transportation authorization bill the House passed earlier this year.
The provision was not included in the bipartisan Senate infrastructure bill, DeFazio said, because the Senate-passed bill “was written by climate-denying Republicans and a couple of Democratic collaborators.”
Five Republicans and five Democrats led months-long negotiations on the Senate bill, and all 50 Senate Democrats voted for it last month.
The bill also includes $350 million for a new U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker in the Great Lakes. The ship, meant to keep shipping lanes clear in winter, was sought by U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, (D-Ohio).
Committee Republicans still accused Democrats of violating the agreement to reopen pieces of the bipartisan infrastructure bill by including the greenhouse gas incentives program, and transit and high-speed rail funding.
U.S. Rep. Tim Burchett, (R-Tenn.), introduced an amendment to strike the transit program.
“President Biden had stated that he didn’t want to duplicate anything and he wanted this to be clean,” Burchett said. “This duplicative program violates the agreement, again, re-litigating matters in the bipartisan infrastructure bill.”
The Democratic majority defeated the amendment.
U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, (R-Penn.), introduced an amendment to remove the incentive program and U.S. Rep. Doug LaMalfa, a California Republican, introduced one to zero out funding for high-speed rail. Democrats voted down both amendments.
Like DeFazio, ranking Republican Sam Graves of Missouri was displeased with the two-track approach, but for different reasons. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has “held the Senate’s infrastructure bill hostage” in tying it to the reconciliation bill, he said.
“Infrastructure is now just a Trojan horse,” he said.
During Tuesday’s markup, Republicans also voiced objections to the size of the overall budget plan and to Democrats’ priorities at a time when they saw more pressing issues.
“When will the majority say, ‘enough is enough’ and slam the brakes on this reckless spending?” Graves said.
Graves added that Congress should focus on the military withdrawal from Afghanistan, responding to Hurricane Ida and addressing inflation. The budget plan did not do any of those things, he said.
U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, a Louisiana Republican, offered an amendment to provide $10 billion in Federal Emergency Management Administration funding to help those affected by Ida.
But Democrats noted the bill was the product of careful negotiations with other committees and the Senate, and funding levels could not be changed.
Republicans also brought messaging amendments further afield from the committee’s jurisdiction, aiming to ban critical race theory from being taught at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, investigating military equipment left in Afghanistan, illegal border crossings and the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate for employers with more than 100 workers. All were defeated.
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